Why writing is always best as a solitary pursuit

I have always been a bit confused by the idea of co-authoring. I can never get my head around what the writing process must be like on things like, say, hit big-budget boxset-style TV series.

Several – perhaps dozens – of writers routinely appear in the end credits, leading me to a quizzical expression and the question – what, exactly, do they all do? Do they convene in a large room and sit in a semi-circle in front of their laptops? Does one writer concentrate on one setpiece, a second on another, with an overall Wizard of Oz type – Aaron Sorkin, for example – pulling all the strings as he looks over their shoulders?

The short answer is I don’t know. I would guess that every show is unique, with different modes of work that rise from the earth during the “writing process”.

Maybe this is one thing that large writing teams have in common with their more conventional cousins, whose primary collective attribute could be boiled down to the word “solitary”: that the act of writing – putting words down in order to tell a story, and getting that story completed in a manner that gives meaning to one reader, or enjoyment to another, or baffling wonderment to someone else – is never anything less than chaotic. It may be a bit like childbirth. You get from one side to the other, where the world is changed utterly, but the bit in the middle, the action, is something anguished and unexplainable.

TV writing is one thing, but co-authoring books is quite another. It can work fine in non-fiction – Levitt and Dubner have nailed teamwork for their Freakonomic series, the Christmas bestsellers’ list every year is filled with ghost-written books, and children’s books would be a whole lot poorer without a top of the range writer-illustrator alignment.

But it’s altogether more problematic in the sphere of so-called “creative” writing. How can you co-write a novel, or a collection of poems, or a play? The relationship between writer and editor can be strained enough with adding another name to the book jacket or the poster.


All that came to mind today when I read of the High Court settlement between Roddy Doyle, and a number of other parties from the world of Irish theatre on the one side, and Bisi Adigun on the other.

Doyle and Adigun teamed up to co-write a modern retelling of JM Synge’s century-old classic “The Playboy of the Western Word”, which attracted plenty of press when it was given a world premiere at The Abbey Theatre. All was seemingly fine and well for a while, until a second run at the same venue a year or two later contained a host of changes which had not, it seems, been okayed by both writers.

Cue legal action, culminating in the transfer of all associated rights seemingly solely to Adigun in a settlement on Wednesday.

It’s all a bit unseemly, and not an environment that writers would usually be familiar with.

I’m sure Doyle will be happy to have put the episode behind him so that he can concentrate on something that will undoubtedly garner him much more positive media attention when The Guts, his quarter-of-a-century-later sequel to The Commitments, is published later this year.

3 thoughts on “Why writing is always best as a solitary pursuit

  1. Yes, I dislike the idea of collaborating with another writer on say, a novel, though I did co-write a play once with 4 others. I like to collaborate with visual artists too.
    It strikes me that collaborating on a book must be a commercial enterprise from the start (i’m thinking novels specifically.) Where is the creative impulse in that?

  2. I think leaving both egos at the door is key to collaborating with another writer. A good friend and I live on opposite sides of the globe and yet we write creatively via email. But we both have no problem saying “Hey, I don’t think it should be done like X, let’s do Y.” or “WTH are you on? Char Z would never say something like that!”

    It comes down to professionalism from both (all?) parties, to not let ‘sensitive feels’ or any preciousness take over. Mutual respect, too, of course.

    The hardest part with any collaborative work is being able to express your wants, respect theirs and get the job done.

    I would have killed to be a West Wing staff writer, though!!

  3. I suppose it’s just something I could never imagine doing in tandem.

    On reflection now I recall reading the Michael Palin diaries. His recollections of the early days of Python, and the writing processes they entailed, were striking. It was a creative process, and it doesn’t seem to have been driven by any commercial ambition, at the start at least.

    But then again comedy writing is a whole other area (Linehan and Mathews, Mitchell and Webb, etc). When it comes to writing like that then it pays to have someone to bounce off. And so, thinking aloud, why aren’t there more co-authored comic novels? Maybe all comedy writers just graduate straight to sketch shows, and never have the inclination to write a novel
    In the first place…

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